MEDIA CONTACT:  Julie Willmot
(609) 278-7137

TRENTON, N.J. - Mercer County is entering into a shared services agreement with Middlesex County to regionalize its youth services now conducted at the Mercer County Youth Detention Center. Under the proposed agreement, Mercer will close its Youth Detention Center in Ewing, and all juveniles currently housed there will transfer to the Middlesex County Youth Services Center in North Brunswick Township. The agreement would begin June 1 pending State approval.

In 2006 Mercer County joined in the statewide directive from the Office of the Attorney General in collaboration with the Juvenile Justice Commission (JJC) in the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) to reduce inappropriate detention of youth in detention facilities and to begin to address the over-representation of minority youth in detention.  Through a three-year planning and implementation process, Mercer has reduced the population in its Youth Detention Center.  The population at Mercer County’s Youth Detention Center, which has capacity for more than 80 residents, has steadily declined over the past several years, from a high of 86 in 2005 (average daily count of 68) to a low of 9 in 2010. The 2010 daily average was 19. It currently costs Mercer County more than $500 per day to house each young offender. By regionalizing this youth service and shuttering the facility, located in Ewing, Mercer County would save taxpayers more than $4.2 million annually, but the overall savings to the taxpayer is even greater, in that youth who should not be incarcerated but are -- at tremendous cost to the taxpayer -- will receive more appropriate and less costly services instead.

This JDAI initiative has gained momentum nationwide as leaders begin to look critically at the reasons that minor youth end up detained in a correctional setting.  The law indicates that youth are to be detained in a correction setting for two reasons: Safety to the public (for example, the charges or crimes that they have allegedly engaged in make them a danger to the public), or when the youth has a history of not showing up in court when ordered in front of the judge.  When a review of young people detained in correctional settings was done, the reasons they were detained varied greatly, but often occurred in order to get the youth into a treatment setting (mental health, or alcohol and drug treatment), to teach them a lesson (angered a police officer or judge) or because a parent wasn’t available to pick them up from the police station. Under the contract, no juvenile offender who should remain in custody, under any circumstances, will be released unless so ordered by the courts.

“We’ve shifted our philosophy regarding how we treat young offenders. We believe that except for those charged with very serious or violent crimes, a program that provides mechanisms to detain fewer youth and relies on proven, family-focused interventions, education, mental health treatment and opportunities for positive youth development is the correct direction,” Hughes said. “We believe there is a better way to rehabilitate young people who commit crimes, and incarceration should be a last resort.”

Under the planned agreement, Mercer County would pay Middlesex County to house juvenile offenders now held at the Mercer site, with a guaranteed minimum of 20 individuals per day. The agreement would have to be authorized by both the Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders and the Mercer County Board of Chosen Freeholders.

The two counties began exploring the possibility of sharing youth detention 18 months ago. Hughes focused on the issue again last year as part of his overall commitment to second-chance initiatives. Hughes recently announced a re-entry initiative for adult ex-offenders that would help link them with businesses that would offer employment, training and educational opportunities. “The Middlesex County Youth Detention Center’s model focuses on rehabilitation through education, and I believe that facility will help Mercer’s youth transition into adulthood better than the program we currently are able to offer,” added Hughes.

“The challenges the economy presents to us demand that we find new ways to reduce the cost of county government and reduce the tax burden on our residents,” Hughes said. “We are committed to working closely with our neighboring counties and with our municipal partners to drive down the cost of government through regionalization and sharing of services wherever appropriate, and I thank Middlesex County for working with us to realize our shared goals.”

Mercer has worked diligently to look at the causes for detention and to put programs in place to direct youth to the right service rather then to detain them, unless indicated by the charges/criminal activity.  Mercer County also planned and implemented programs that would alleviate the barriers that youth and families encounter when trying to comply with all the requirements placed upon them by their involvement in the system.

Through special initiative funding from the JJC and commitments from Mercer County, a number of community programs have been developed to assist in the appropriate placement of youth who become involved in the juvenile court system.

An alternative to detention program was created, which includes house arrest and an in-home detention with a monitoring bracelet and GPS surveillance when needed.

The probation department changed the way it handles it cases, and now directs services based on the needs of the youth. Probation has developed a cadre of officers who are skilled in the implementation of sanctions and rewards for youth on their specific caseloads and work closely with the court to address violations of their conditions of probation.

Mercer County will provide transportation for youth who need to access behavioral health and other programs, and will provide transportation for families twice a week to see their loved one who is detained at the facility, and transport youth and families to court when they cannot provide their own transportation. The plan is also to provide video visitation capability to families.

Additionally, for youth who are being held for reasons other than an offense that requires detention, and a family member cannot be reached, Mercer County will provide emergency beds until such time a parent or guardian can be reached.

The Mercer County employs 46 at its Detention Center, and will reduce that workforce under guidelines set forth by the state’s Civil Service Commission. Some laid-off employees may have opportunities to work with Middlesex County.